The Quiet Man

Film Review and Historical Perspective

By Nancy Welsh

The Quiet Man is a film based on a fictional short story of the same name by Maurice Walsh. Directed by the (in)famous John Ford, the film stars John Wayne as Sean Thornton, an Irish-born émigré who returns from America to the Emerald Isle in the early 1930's to fulfill the dream of his mother - to live once again in Innisfree. The town of Innisfree is fictional, of course (no doubt borrowed from the poem by William Butler Yeats), and the characters in it are all fictional. The film, however, highlights the dichotomy of modern life in an ancient place.

The Quiet Man was filmed in 1951 on the grounds of Ashford Castle near Cong, Ireland. The exterior shots are designed to showcase the beauty of rural Ireland and, were it not for the exceptional acting ability of the cast members (as well as the Ford's brilliant sense of balance), might have stolen the show. According to Maureen O'Hara's commentary on the film, much of what we see still exists unchanged to this day. Interiors were shot, out of necessity, at the Republic studios in Hollywood, California, except for the interior of the church. Ford knew of the beautiful stained glass windows in the Protestant church on the grounds of the castle and insisted on including them in the film. According to Ms. O'Hara, the church was "transformed" into a Catholic church by the inclusion of a borrowed Holy Water basin placed just outside the back door.

While the background scenery was breathtaking, the acting was superb. John Wayne played the main character, the aforementioned Sean Thornton, who has returned to Ireland to re-purchase his family's ancestral home, "White of Morn." Thornton has a secret in his past that he is trying to escape. Like many young Irishmen in the early part of the 20th century, Thornton turned to boxing to vent his frustration at the poverty and the racial inequalities that surrounded him growing up in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania (incorrectly - and comically - identified as Massachusetts by Michaleen Flynn in the film). "Trooper Thorn's" rage led him to develop a "Killer" attitude that cost another boxer his life. He comes back to Ireland seeking peace and solitude, but instead finds himself at odds with his neighbor, Will Danaher, played by Victor McLaglen, who forces Thornton to fight for the love of his life - Danaher's sister, Mary Kate, played by the incomparable Maureen O'Hara.

The difficulties arise between the two men when Will Danaher refuses to allow Thornton to court his sister. Thornton, having been raised in the United States, is unfamiliar with the customs and traditions of Ireland, in which the male relatives have authority over their womenfolk's lives and choices. Traditionally, women were under the protection of their male relatives more out of practical necessity than an overt desire for control. These customs and protocols hark back to a time when a woman was in real danger of being abducted or forced into marriage by men who sought control over her family's lands and holdings. This film illustrates how these ancient traditions had survived well into the 20th century.

The problem of the courtship of Mary Kate is resolved by means of another tradition. A conspiracy is formed between Thornton, Michaleen Flynn (the matchmaker), Father Loneergan (the parish priest), and Reverend Playfair (the Protestant minister) to embarrass Danaher into allowing Thornton to court Mary Kate. At the annual horserace, the custom was for unmarried women to place their bonnets on the stakes that indicated the finish line. The riders could then snatch up their favorite girl's bonnet and return it to her in exchange for a kiss. In the film, Mary Kate's bonnet is left hanging on its stake at the end of the race, while Thornton takes the bonnet of the rich widow Tillane (played by Mildred Natwick) instead. Mary Kate and her family are humiliated and Danaher realizes that he has competition for the hand of the widow Tullane. To solve his problems, Danaher allows the courtship between Thornton and Mary Kate to begin.

The courtship itself is steeped in ancient tradition. In order to ensure that only suitable suitors were considered, a matchmaker was called in. It was customary for the man to initiate courtship proceedings. If his suit was accepted by the woman's family, the couple was allowed to participate in a series of closely monitored activities designed to ensure that there was no "pattyfingers" going on before the marriage. Of course, things did not always go as planned. In the film, Thornton and Mary Kate run away from the matchmaker, played by Barry Fitzgerald, and end up spending the afternoon in a cemetery during a rainstorm (how romantic!). Naturally, they must be married right away to avoid a potential scandal. However, a new conflict arises between Danaher and Thornton - and between Thornton and his bride - over the question of Mary Kate's dowry.

A dowry was traditionally the price that a woman's family paid to her husband as part of the marriage contract. This practice was originally purely a business transaction, but, in time, became a synonym for a woman's value. The amount of the dowry indicated to the groom and to the community the family's opinion of their female relative's worth, as well as giving an overt suggestion of the family's wealth. Mary Kate refers to the money and the furniture that make up her dowry and belonging to "her mother and her mother's mother before her". Rather than being viewed as the property of the family (specifically the presiding male relative), in this culture the dowry has become the exclusive property of the females - passed down from generation to generation as a sort of insurance against destitution. In whatever circumstances a married woman may have found herself, she always had "her things" to fall back on.

Thornton does not understand this way of thinking, and the custom is so ancient and embedded in her culture that Mary Kate cannot find the words to explain it to him except to say that if he doesn't have her dowry, he doesn't truly have her. This misunderstanding drives them apart and keeps them from getting on with their married life. Mary Kate goes to the Catholic priest for advice and Thornton goes to the Protestant minister. One can only assume that Thornton has long since abandoned his mother's Catholic faith, either because of the racial and religious persecution aimed at European immigrants in late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States, or for reasons of his own. The conflict is finally resolved when Mary Kate runs away, fearing that her husband is a coward for not wanting to fight for her rights, and Thornton literally drags her home. This scene seems disturbing to the modern mind, but again, this is tradition. Thornton realizes that he must deal with Mary Kate and her brother according to their custom, whether he agrees with it or not. The whole town comes out to follow him as he walks, then drags his wife over the countryside for five miles. (In her commentary, Maureen O'Hara explains that Ford refused to clear the path of debris - including sheep dung - so that the scene would be more realistic). Along the way, a woman offers Thornton a "nice stick to beat the lady with," indicating that the practice of domestic abuse was considered normal in their culture. Thornton then demands the money "owed" to him by Mary Kate's brother. Danaher throws it at his feet, whereupon Mr. and Mrs. Thornton throw the money in the steam tractor's furnace. The money was never the issue - it is keeping with tradition that is most important to Mary Kate. The ensuing fight between Thornton and Danaher is the climax of the film. Everyone gets involved in the wagering (another tradition) - even the parish priest and the Reverend Playfair.

While the history of Ireland has been fraught with violence and discord over the subject of religion for centuries, in the fictional town of Innisfree, Catholics and Protestants get along famously and treat each other with friendship and respect, as indicated by their willingness to set aside their differences to help Thornton with his romantic problems. Throughout the film one can see the evidence of this cooperation. At the end of the film, the townspeople line the road to cheer for Reverend Playfair. They are aware that the Anglican Bishop is visiting Innisfree with the intention of closing the Protestant church for lack of attendance. Rather than lose his friend, Father Lonergan, played delightfully by Ward Bond, rallies the Catholic community to come to the Reverend's aid and encourages them to "Cheer like Protestants" as the Reverend drives by with the Bishop. The willingness of the local Catholic Church to lend director John Ford their Holy Water basin for the filming of the movie indicates that such cooperation between Catholics and Protestants may actually exist in Ireland today, despite reports to the contrary (or perhaps it shows the power of John Ford to get what he wanted!).

The Quiet Man is an exceptional film which faithfully depicts a people and a culture rich in tradition and history. While the story is contrived to show as many of these traditions as possible in one place, director John Ford masterfully crafted this film so as to be not a caricature of Ireland, but a loving tribute to a beautiful and ancient land.


In-film commentary by actress Maureen O'Hara

Documentary "The Joy of Ireland" (included with DVD version), featuring Maureen O'Hara, Patrick Wayne, and Andrew McLaglen.

Suggested reading:

Akenson, Donald Harmon. Small Differences: Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, 1815-1922: An International Perspective.

Massic, Sonja. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Irish History and Culture.